Pip Climbs Her Mountain

One of the big challenges facing organisations putting on para events is deciding how to categorise the endless variety of disabilities to maximise access and fairness for all. It’s a difficult task.

The decision went against rock climber Pip Rowlands, when ‘learning disabilities’ was removed as a para-climbing category in 2018, forcing her to compete in open events.

One response could have been to complain, or drop out. But Pip – who has severe learning and communication difficulties, autism and cortical visual impairment as a result of the development condition DDX3X syndrome – quickly figured that the best response would be to encourage more people with learning disabilities to take up climbing.

Showing others the ropes

Since then, realising many people with autism and learning difficulties didn’t know that climbing indoors was a safe and accessible sport for them, she has made a film with the Bendrigg Trust, the incredible disability charity that supported Pip to learn to climb. The film won an award from Genetic Alliance UK.

Pip also helped start a learning disability and autism climbing festival.

The paraclimbing community and climbing coaches in the UK are now aware that those with learning disabilities can climb well and that it can be a healthy, safe sport for them. Perhaps the greatest impact has been on the people who support Pip who have seen a whole new capability in her.

Fresh challenges

Climbing has led to other things, too. With new-found confidence on steep ground, Pip is able to walk some of the paths in the Lake District that were formerly inaccessible to her.

Climbing has given Pip the balance, coordination and confidence to try new things.

And like many climbers, she’s found a passion for all things outdoors and now paddles white water with great enthusiasm in her white water canoe! She’s even paddled the Caledonian Canal – from Scotland’s West to East coast –to show that people with learning disabilities can be ambitious and successful.

Outdoor instructor Vicky told us, “I’ve seen Pip go from someone who couldn’t really paddle a canoe to someone who can tough out a multiday expedition down a tricky river.”

This summer Pip descended the river Spey, wild camping several nights on the banks.

Where did it all begin?

Pip learned to climb in the supported environment of the Bendrigg Trust. It was a big challenge to go to a BMC paraclimbing festival – she had never travelled far before and the venues were big and noisy. She was the only person with learning disabilities in the first year but by 2017 this had grown to four before the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) took the decision to remove the ’learning disability’ category.

As care worker Lisa told us, “I never would have believed it until I saw Pip climb, it’s such a great sport for all.”

Pip is both physically and mentally stronger and more confident from her climbing and now canoeing, whilst still making time to care for her twin sister, who is more severely affected by the same condition.

Pip is now a strong minded, adventurous person. Her enthusiasm for the outdoors is infectious and it’s where she wants to be, as an advocate, a leader and a role model.  She’s a very deserving winner of a spot on the 2021 Leaders’ List.

How does it feel to win?